The glow of the comDev illuminated the faces of the crew as they huddled together, examining the map. It was noticeably colder in the crag-ways and Gayle pulled his jacket around him.
“We can enter the yellow zone here,” Meron stabbed at the map. “But…we are likely to run into patrols that way…or we can continue through these ice caverns.”
Gayle lent over the screen, “what’s that unmapped area? We’d have to go through that?”
Meron turned her head to read the screen, “It says ‘tribal’?”
“That doesn’t sound good.” He replied.
“What does that mean?” Weavel snapped.
Kode and his men had left them at the edge of his territory but explained nothing about the map, presumably because it was so obvious to them, but they were locals and had a certain amount of knowledge that off-worlders didn’t.
“Tribal: that’s a word that used to mean primitives.” Meers offered.
“Primitives? Like cannibals?” Weavel said incredulously. “But we are on a Sedna?”
Gayle shrugged, “Kode warned us this place was weird.”
Meron traced a line through the tribal area, “I’d bet there is a good reason for this area remaining unmapped. We should go a different way.”
Gayle had no complaint with that logic; last thing he wanted was to be the next meal for a bunch of savages.
Ty squeezed through the narrow crevice that separated the team from a well-lit corridor; a continuous band of yellow told them where they were. Popping her head out, she glanced each way then gave a series of military hand signals, the only bit of which Gayle understood were four fingers.
Meers, who was squatting down, replied using the same signals. He relayed what Ty had said, “Looks like we’ve lucked out here, there’s a guard post thirty meters down the corridor. Four men.”
“That’s too many to fight without raising the alarm.” Meron said. She consulted the map, “if we backtrack to this junction‒”
“‒we can take that tunnel which comes out…” Meers, smiling, traced the path of the tunnel on the map, “…here, into that storage area.”
Meron returned the smile touching her hair, “It will take some time to get back to the junction but it should be clear.” The pair shared a lingering look before separating; only Gayle seemed to notice this.
Ty returned to the team and thumbed at Weavel, “We should move out before clutz here alerts the troopers to our presence.” She pushed past him with her shoulder.
He hissed at her, “Hey, don’t forget who’s boss here!”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten anything.” She sneered at him as she passed.
“If you two have finished.” Meron said turning off the comDev.
The trek back to the junction had been easy enough, misleadingly so, for the tunnel leading to the storage area turned out to be hell. On the map it had appeared a clear, straight-forward path but in reality it was far from it, twisting this way then that. Several times they had to squeeze through narrow gaps or jump across gaping crevices which were often hidden under fragile ice. These disappeared underfoot into unknown depths. Now they had to get down on their hands and knees and crawl through a hole in the cavern floor.
Meers banged his head on a low-hanging piece of ice, “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Quit complaining, Redhouse was a ton harder than this.” Meron smirked.
“Yeah, but we were twenty years younger then.” He returned the grin. He waved at the others, “you kids wouldn’t know about that.”
“You know Meers, Gayle was in the war too.” Meron offered.
“Oh yeah?” Meers looked at the mechanic with surprise.
Gayle shifted uncomfortably, “I worked as a ship’s mech.”
“You must have been young, what ship?”
“Err, I started out fixing fighters out on Hellenic‒”
Meers cut him off, “Hellenic? Oh right, so you weren’t actually in the war.” He turned away with a dismissive wave. “Redhouse, that was war.”
Gayle mumbled something awkward, he felt about an inch tall. It was true that Hellenic Base, on Io, a moon of Jupiter, had been a backwater in the war, but there had been some hairy moments – ships with leaking fuel tanks ready to explode, live torpedos needing defusing – shit that sets a man drinking. Hellenic had only been the start of it. He swallowed, Goddam hero thinks he owned the war! Dammit, he needed a drink.
Weavel, who had been complaining non-stop for the last half-hour, groaned as he rolled out of the hole, “My legs are killing me, can’t we stop for a break?”
They were in an elongated chamber, with some ice shelfs that looked like benches.
“Alright, everyone take five.” Meron ordered, she pointed to Ty as she exited the hole, “guard this end – I’m going to check ahead a little.”
Meers followed after her, “Hang on, I’ll come with you.”
Gayle detected a stiff nod from Meron as she strode off.
Weavel waited for the pair to disappear into the gloom before he spoke what was already on Gayle’s mind, “Those two are getting kinda chummy, we got to watch that.”
Gayle shrugged and slumped against an ice boulder, pretending not to be interested. “They have history. He was her commander I think.”
“They were in the war together weren’t they?” Ty piped in, “War got a way of bringing folk together.”
“Or blowing them apart,” Gayle said, turned his calloused hands over and picking at a scab.
“I bet they screwed,” Weavel grabbed his crotch. ”Yeah, I bet they did it like gronks!”
“You’re an ass,” Ty sneered but she couldn’t hide the grin.
Raised voices echoed through the chamber, they were muffled but undoubtedly belonged to Meron and Meers. Gayle looked at Ty.
She flicked her head at him, “Better take a look.”
“What? Why me?” He said.
“Cause I got orders to guard here.” Ty replied.
Gayle thought about asking Weavel to go for a second, but then reconsidered; he reasoned that was asking for trouble with his big mouth.
Hesitantly he shuffled towards the disturbance. He passed a twist in the cavern and the voices became much more distinct and he couldn’t help but hear their conversation.
“You can’t deny what happened between us…” Meers said.
“I don’t deny it, but that was then,” her voice was harsh but quavered. “I was young, impressionable.”
“I loved you Meron, then you disappeared.” Meers’ voice drifted.
They were quiet for a moment; Gayle paused and strained to hear.
“I had to leave.”
“Why? Why did his death change things?”
“He isn’t dead.” Her voice held resolute.
Meers sighed, “Don’t you think twenty years is long enough to wait?”
“The war was going to end anyway. It was just…a thing Meers, and it was wrong.”
“How wrong can love be?”
“I didn’t love you,” She replied coldly.
Meers growled, “I don’t believe that.”
“It’s over Edward, it was over twenty years ago,” She sounded less convincing.
Gayle decided that he couldn’t wait any longer, so he feigned a cough as he came around the corner. They both glared at him.
“What is it?” Meron snapped.
“Err, we heard some noise, thought there was some trouble.” He stammered, looking everywhere but at her. Meers was shaking his head slowly.
She folded her arms across her chest, “Everything’s fine, tell the others we’re moving out.”
Gayle stood ill at ease. He felt an urge to say something but nothing came out.
“Move Gayle! Now!” She shooed him.
The remainder of the trek to the storage area was subdued, everyone stewing in their own thoughts. Even Weavel was quiet for a change and Gayle was thankful for that, his own mind was preoccupied with what had transpired between Meron and Meers. He tried to examine his feelings, but it was a cloud of confusion. He’d known the two only a few weeks so why did he care? Why was he so unsettled by that? Was this jealousy?
Meron consulted the map, “This should be it, just up ahead.”
On cue a slim crevice appeared at the end of the passage, beyond it Gayle could make out a well-lit warehouse stacked high full of crates. Ty slipped out, seeking cover between the crates, and a minute later gave a thumbs up signal.
As he passed into the warehouse, Gayle dragged a finger over the surface of one of the crates cutting a trail through a mix of dust and mud. Because of the constant moisture in the air from the ice, dust turned into a kind of greasy sludge.
Ty stood in-between a pair of old vehicle tracks etched into the ice, and glanced around the chamber, “I guess they don’t use this place much.”
“They did once,” Gayle indicated the tracks.
“What is all this stuff anyway?” Ty indicated the crates.
Weavel hopped up onto a crate and rifled through one that was ajar, “looks like broken machinery of some kind.” With a clunk he pulled out a long cylindrical piece.
“Scrap parts,” Meers squinted at the rusted drive-arm. “Mining equipment by the looks of it.”
Gayle, who had jumped up on another crate, extracted what looked like a battery pack, “Shit, these are old Tyrum energy cells. You can’t get them anymore. Most powerful battery technologies invented; this lot must be worth a ton!” He held one up and marvelled at the dim glow through it’s crystal-like casing. He’d heard about them but never see one before.
“And unstable in their old age.” Meers warned. “We had one blow up on Redhouse when it got dropped in a sewer pit. Took out half the squad; they stopped using ’em after that.”
Gayle surreptitiously slipped one into his pocket. If he was going to survive this, he decided, he deserved some recompense. Even if the cell only held a half-charge he’d be able to sell it and live off the profits for a few months.
“Once they would have shipped this stuff off-world for recycling but I guess it became easier to just dump it here when the war broke out,” Meers explained as he moved on.
They made their way down a corridor of crates and around a corner to a less organised part of the warehouse where mangled bits of metal and machinery were dumped in an enormous pile. Gayle guessed that at some point the Sednans had given up with the idea of organising their junk, it seemed odd to him when they were so ordered elsewhere.
Beyond the pile, at the far end of the warehouse, they found a huge access door large enough for an industrial-sized dumper to pass- it looked like it hadn’t been opened in a decade or more, the great hinges rusted shut. Inset into it was a human-sized door and above it hung a dirty vidCom, askew where it was partly coming away from its mounting. It flickered briefly and woke from its long slumber, displaying the winged figure of Icarus.
The stern face of Major Field replaced it, “Captain Meers, it seems you and your crew are way off track, and I find it hard to believe that it is by accident. Somehow you disappeared off our scanners for a while and now I find you in a classified area. I’m starting to think you don’t have the best intentions.” She frowned, “Please stay where you are, an interrogation squad will be with you shortly. You best be there when they arrive. You’ve got some explaining to do.” Her image vanished as abruptly as it had appeared.
“Shit,” Meron cursed. “I should have known they would be tracking us.”
In his head Gayle went over what the Major had said, Somehow you disappeared off our scanners for a while. Then it clicked, they must have been untrackable while in the crag-ways. If they went back in they could effectively vanish again. “I don’t think their scanners can see us in the crags.”
Meers nodded, “That makes sense. Kode said that command didn’t know about them and through all that ice it would be hard to track anything with any form of scanner I know.”
Meron sighed, “We better make a move on then, before those troops arrive.”
“But where do we go?” Weavel fretted, “this place will be swarming with troopers once they work out where we went.”
“There is only one option,” Gayle replied.
Meron nodded, “We go into the tribal area, and you can lead the way Weavel.”
As they descended the primitive-looking staircase, the ice a dirt-grey color, Gayle detected a faintly sulphurous odour in the moist updraft. It looked as though, in the distant past, a giant had smashed away most of the stalagmites and stalagtites and hewn rough steps into the floor. The stairs were narrow however and they were forced to proceed in single file. Judging by the amount of debris in the ice, Gayle surmised that they must be near the base of the ice shelf where it met the dwarf planet’s conglomerate core.
Meron examined her comDev, her voice echoed, “this is where the map runs out, beyond here is the tribal zone.”
Ty, who was alongside a nervous-looking Weavel, hushed them with a raised hand. In the darkness ahead they heard the faint roar of rushing water.
“This is the end of the stairs,” Ty called back.
Reaching the bottom step Gayle felt a crunch underfoot and glanced down to see a gravel floor – he couldn’t remember the last time he had stood on real earth. He felt a remote connection, like when a child first realises its hand is a part of its body. Ahead and either side the cavern disconcertingly disappeared into the gloom, he baulked moving forward.
“Hey, what’s the hold up?” Meron said her voice peaking sharply.
Gayle, watching Meron with a keen eye, stepped backward out of her way as they paused long enough for Meers, who had fallen behind, to catch up. His step was ill taken however, and he fell over an outcrop, landing on his backside.
“You ought to watch your step.” Meron smirked. “Hey, what’s that in that mound?”
Gayle looked between his feet into the empty eye-sockets of a human skull. There were a pile of bleached bones all around him, jutting out of the loose gravel.
He cringed at the discovery, “Looks like these tribals are not opposed to feasting on folk.”
Weavel came in closer for a better look and flinched back, “Could be just some fool who fell into a drain.”
Gayle, picking up a skull, turned it over in his hands, discovering a jagged hole bashed in the back of it. He tossed it to Weavel who juggled it like a hot potato. “Some drain huh?”
The skull rolled down the slope, clattering across the stones. Weavel wiped his hands on his shirt as if they were covered in faeces.
“We should move dead ahead, the map picks up again about two clicks ahead.” Meron said, checking the map.
Ty raised her torch, illuminating a few meters ahead in all direction, there were no walls. “Can’t see much.”
They worked their way forward, or what they thought was forward, past occasional chunks of ice or boulders which interrupted their path. The rough ground was criss-crossing by rivulets where water drained from the melting ice that loomed above. Despite detouring around these they found no walls, the cavern seemed a massive expanse, a pocket under the ice and they continued moving forward to the sound of rushing water.
A half hour later Weavel broke the silence with an impatient groan, “This is so boring, there’s nothin’ here, nothin’ at all!”
“Keep your mouth shut!” Meron snapped, “There is something out here I’m sure of it.”
“There’s nothing out here, we’ve been walking for ages, if somethin’ was here it would have attacked us by now!” Weavel continued to moan.
Meers stepped in and placed a hand in the small of Meron’s back, the other on Weavel’s shoulder. He then pointed behind them.
Out of the murky black hundreds of shapes seemed to be dancing, floating. As they watched they seemed to be growing brighter, resolving and increasing in size.
“What is that?” Gayle began to ask, but realised as soon as the words had left his mouth.
Meron spoke first, “Faces?”
“Run!” Meers yelled.
Weavel needed no encouragement and charged off into the blackness.
“Shit, the fool!” Ty and Meers set off after him, leaving Gayle and Meron in half-light.
Gayle was slow to react and was startled by a blur of metal. It was a devious-looking spear and it slammed into the ground just missing his tattered boot. He shuddered involuntarily.
“Come on!” Meron grabbed his hand and yanked him away. In the same movement she activated the light on her comDev which lit up the air around them. He was surprised by the sudden warm contact but had no time to enjoy it. The air filled with wicked barbed spears and they peppered the ground half-burring themselves in the loose gravel. A couple passed so close by they left Gayle’s ears ringing. They sidestepped around an ice boulder a millisecond before a spear smashed into it. A halo of shards arced into the air.
“This is getting too close for comfort.” Meron paused briefly behind the boulder, her iris’s full and round.
“We’re losing the others,“ Gayle doubled over, sweat dripped off his nose. He tried to breathe, his lungs burning. Ty’s torch was shrinking away with each moment.
“Come on, we have to catch up,” She dragged him by the shirt and thrust him forward; she was barely breaking a sweat. “You gotta work on that fitness.”
Gayle sprinted as best he could towards the faint glow of Ty’s torch when it suddenly vanished. All around the pair, wild men darted out of the darkness, jabbing spears at them, babbling and screeching insanely. Gayle got the idea they were trying to herd them in another direction, away from the light. Meanwhile, the sound of cascading water was becoming louder, whatever the source they were getting very close to it.
“Up ahead, it’s not much further!” Meron screamed back as he began to flag again. In that instant she dropped away, disappearing downward.
Gayle didn’t have time to react and launched off an embankment and came down hard on a gravel slope. The wind was knocked out of his lungs. He continued falling, sliding out of control across the loose surface that shifted like marbles under him. Then, with all the grace of a bulldozer, he smacked into a boulder. A moment later Meron came sliding to rest gracefully beside him.
They were in a narrow channel which had been eroded by centuries of melting ice, no more than fifty metres wide. From the river a greenish glow illuminated the chamber and the far bank where portals led away into darkened tunnels. He spotted the others who had already crossed the river and were waving at them from upstream, on the opposite bank, near the far-most portal.
Gayle flipped himself over. He looked up in time to see the horde or savages appear at the edge of the embankment. This time he got a good look at them. Most wore stained and shredded overalls which were almost beyond recognition, others had abandoned clothing altogether. One of them, a leader, howled and pointed at them urging the horde forward.
“Over there, across the river!” Gayle tried to yell but his voice was drowned by the roar of the rushing water.
Meron got the message; she was already on her feet and sprinting for the water’s edge.
He stumbled after her with a hail of spears falling about him; some stuck upright out of the shallows, and he was able to use them to help stay on his feet. However, the water quickly became waist deep and he had to wade against the freezing current. He knew that if he went under he would be dead within minutes. Something began to spark and vibrate in his jacket pocket, he’d forgotten about the energy cell he’d secreted there. The savages, now at the water’s edge, were retrieving their spears.
“Fuck!” He tore off his jacket in a mad panic and flung it towards them. Their eyes alight, full of bloodlust, they rushed forward heedlessly.
“Come on!” Meron screamed hauling him out of the water.
“Get down‒” his yell was cut short as he fell forward onto her.
A plume of water erupted behind them. A wave of concussion upturned, smashed and tore its way through savage and ice alike, spraying pieces of both like bullets in all directions. Then, an instant later came the deafening sound, sending Gayle’s brain bouncing inside his skull. He blacked out.
Gayle drifted dreamily without a care for time. He felt light and peaceful, like what he imagined it had been like in his mother’s womb. Despite the tranquillity a growing sense that he had something to do began to tap on his shoulder. He shrugged it away; he was going to enjoy this place, so peaceful, so relaxing. The feeling, however, became more insistent and a heaviness began to nag at him, like a small child tugging on his sleeve. Despite his protests his waking mind was funnelling his consciousness back to his body. He didn’t want to return back there – it was full of pain, he fought against it. His detached reality ended abruptly with a slap.
“Goddam it Gayle, get off me!” Meron wheezed, shaking him violently.
He began to stir and realised that he was smothering her. They were both suffocating under a blanket of ice. Mustering his strength, he rolled off her, and the mound fell away easily.
“I’m not sure if I should kill you or kiss you. You stole one of those energy cells didn’t you?” She said. Her voice was harsh between gasps.
“We’re still alive?” He slurred, genuinely surprised.
Meron groaned and coughed as she sat up, “Yeah, but they aren’t.” She pointed to the bloody corpses drifting in the shallows.
Gayle adjusted his neck; his brain complained. “My head feels like a squashed melon.”
“Not surprised – you took the brunt of the blast – good for me, bad for you.”
He checked himself over; he didn’t appear to have any major injuries, apart from a few scratches and a raging headache.
“We fell behind this mound of ice; otherwise we’d be toast like them.” Meron said, dusting ice-chunks off her sleeves. On the opposite embankment a number of the wounded were crying out, others were dragging their broken bodies up it.
He tried to sit up but swayed like a drunk. His ribs ached. He surveyed the room and whistled, “Man, the whole roof came down.”
“The others are on the other side of this,” She pointed to the wall of ice now blocking the passage. “Or under it. Hopefully they got away safely.”
He looked at the rubble, it was a complete collapse, “we’ll never get through this, we’ll have to find another way round.”
There was only the one exit now, a passage leading in the opposite direction to where the rest of the crew had last been seen.
“Well,” Meron tugged at her ponytail, correcting it, “we can wait here till the cannibals come back and eat us or‒”
“‒we can see what’s down there?” Gayle thumbed towards the open passage behind them.
“Alright, on your feet‒” she glanced back at him a smirk on her face, “‒hero.”